It was the largest death toll of US civilians by human acts until 9/11 , but was it really “mass suicide” or were people murdered? What’s to be made of the spectre of CIA conspiracies looming over Jonestown? This article examines how the Jonestown narrative was manipulated, and the claims of covert government connections to a massacre that fuelled a war against alternative spirituality.
On 18 November 1978 more than 900 members of The People’s Temple tragically lost their lives at their religious commune in the jungles of Guyana, in what was widely reported as mass suicide. The place, and the tragedy, was dubbed “Jonestown” after the church’s leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. It was the largest death toll of US civilians by deliberate acts, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Like 9/11, there was saturated media coverage, people were shocked and horrified, and the world was never quite the same afterwards.
The impacts of 9/11 remain obvious today, with open-ended wars, extrajudicial killings, mass surveillance, torture and the rollout of police state practices occurring in its wake. Jonestown also had a profound impact on western society. Like 9/11 it set in motion a war, but of a different kind: a war on alternative spirituality.
The derisive phrase, “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” and the sense of dread incited by the word “cult” stems from Jonestown’s aftermath. Their meanings are understood even by those only vaguely familiar with, or born after, this event. The Jonestown narrative spawned the enduring “cult” archetype of our times, instilling the term with diabolical associations.
The event was a catalyst for an upwelling of fear, suspicion and paranoia towards alternative spirituality of many forms – no matter how far removed and unrelated they were from Jonestown – stoked by mass media propaganda. The effects of this ongoing propaganda include alternative spirituality being targeted for censorship via unconstitutional corporate web filters. But the greatest impact has been the social conditioning of people’s minds, with fear used to turn people against the very idea of alternative spirituality.
These after-effects are not so obvious now, because the social attitudes born in reaction to that event have been “normalised” – drummed in through mass media repetition, permeating into our values and collective consciousness, reflexively altering how we view the world, even as the origins of this mindset are obscured or forgotten.
Because of its profound impact, it’s important to question how the Jonestown story has been told, and retold. Those who are familiar with Jonestown generally only know the official story, which has been repeated two-dimensionally again and again by the mainstream media, like an urban legend: 900 plus “mindless” people were “brainwashed” into committing group suicide through drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid on command, under the charismatic “mind control” influence of Jim Jones. This story is turned into a moral fable peppered with ominous warnings about “another Jonestown” as if it were a template others are bound to emulate, with the threat of brainwashing from deviant groups presenting a mortal danger to society.
This perception lives on even as the story of Jonestown becomes an obscurity. Its tragic impacts are perhaps best demonstrated in the fatal siege of the WACO ranch, where members of another Christian commune lost their lives after they were raided by militaristic law enforcement who surrounded their premises, discharged flash grenades and bullets, with a fire resulting and most of the community dying inside. In that incident, Jonestown was foremost in mind, and its story used as rhetorical fodder to fuel a lethal and unnecessary military-style operation. Although the passage of time may have lessened the paranoia that prevailed during the siege of the WACO ranch in 1993, there is no denying that the influence and folklores born from the Jonestown tragedy still live on in the public consciousness.
But how valid is the popular narrative about Jonestown that has left such an indelible mark on society? There is much missing from the official Jonestown story in typical media coverage and popular understandings. If the popular perceptions of this issue were not so selective – leaving out disturbing information that does not fit the accepted narrative – Jonestown’s legacy might have been quite different. At the very least it would be more nuanced, not the simplistic caricature it became that fuelled a moral panic.
If you look a little deeper, there are a lot of anomalies in what happened, which makes what unfolded much more complex, and raises more question marks than certainties. It also raises the spectre of influence or involvement by outside forces. Due to the profound impact this event had on alternative spirituality, it is important to examine it further.
MK-ULTRA AND COINTELPRO
Before going further into what happened at Jonestown, it’s important to give some background on two covert and illegal US government programs which feature in alternative understandings of what may have transpired.
MK-ULTRA was a secret CIA “mind control” research program involving illegal experiments on US and Canadian people. It followed precursor research projects which were born out of Project Paperclip, under which the US government brought Nazi scientists to the USA after World War 2 to continue research in America. The Nazis had committed war crimes by undertaking human experimentation on prisoners in concentration camps. Soon human experimentation was also taking place in North America, namely “mind control” research for military purposes on human subjects. MK-ULTRA officially began in the early 1950s, and officially ended in 1973. The CIA coordinated the project in conjunction with the US Army’s Chemical Corps. Many experiments were done on people without their consent. In some cases, random members of the public were surreptitiously exposed to drugs to study the effects on behaviour. In other cases, prisoners and patients in mental health care were used as guinea pigs for abusive medical experiments that amounted to torture, involving forced isolation, the forced administration of mind-altering drugs and chemicals, electroshock therapy, hypnotherapy, “psychic driving” and, it is alleged in some cases, sexual abuse. In many cases the CIA funnelled funding for these experiments through front organisations or medical institutes, with the macabre experiments carried out by civilian psychiatrists, who were sometimes unaware the funding originated with the CIA. The aim of some experiments was to see if it was possible to break down and directly control a person’s mind and behaviour. Some experiments resulted in death or permanent brain damage in the subjects, or extreme psychological problems.
It has long been posited that the research was aimed at developing “Manchurian candidates” – programmed assassins who could be triggered to kill a target without conscious control. MK-ULTRA has figured into conspiracy theories explaining the spate of political assassinations that took place in the 1960s while MK-ULTRA was active. As it came under scrutiny, the CIA destroyed most of the files on MK-ULTRA and claimed it was no longer running, although many believe its research into mind control continued. Because of this cover-up, the full extent of the program will never be known. It remains shrouded in mystery.
COINTELPRO was another illegal covert operation carried out on US citizens, in this case by the FBI. Under directions from J Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO sought to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” people and organisations deemed a threat to the “social and political order”. These threats included anti-war protestors and civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King, or any political organisation considered subversive.
COINTELPRO stood for “Counter Intelligence Program” and officially ran from 1956 to 1971, although it is believed its tactics continued long after. Going far beyond its remit of investigating crimes, under COINTELPRO the FBI engaged not only in surveillance but wide-scale counter intelligence operations against citizens. The FBI would infiltrate targeted domestic political organisations and seek to discredit them – by acting as agent provocateurs or sowing dissension. It would use psychological warfare tactics such as planting false stories in the press, circulating false pamphlets and letters purported to be from the targeted individual or group, and spreading misinformation in order to discredit them. They used threats and harassment and even illegal force, in some cases working with local police to raid people’s homes, assassinating their targets in the process in some cases.
Both of these programs had become public knowledge in the 1970s prior to the Jonestown tragedy. Now let’s return to Jonestown.
Jonestown – Brief background
Although he is often perceived as a lone preacher running a fringe religious group, Jim Jones was operating as an ordained minister of The Disciples of Christ, a mainstream Christian denomination, albeit a very unconventional one, when the Jonestown massacre occurred.
A charismatic preacher in the Pentecostal tradition since an early age who performed “miracles”, Jones mixed Christian evangelism with socialism, welcoming the poor and disenfranchised to his church, and championing various social causes for the downtrodden. He ran mixed-racial congregations since the 1950’s which was very progressive for the time. After operating in Indianapolis, he moved to California in 1967 where the church he founded, Peoples Temple, established its headquarters first in Ukiah and later in San Francisco. The church’s social welfare programs earned it respect and endorsements from civil rights activists, celebrities, and senior politicians.
Summary of the Jonestown Tragedy
Over time, Jim Jones reportedly became increasingly unhinged and authoritarian and was abusing drugs. He began moving his congregation, the Peoples Temple, from California to the South American country Guyana in the mid-70s, following a spate of negative press reports.
It was here in November 1978 that a tragedy unfolded. US Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to visit Jonestown accompanied by journalists and ex-members who had been lobbying him to intervene, to investigate allegations that ex-members’ relatives were being held there against their will. Initially the visit was tense but civil. The senator asked if anyone wished to leave, and 16 members of the 1100-1200 congregation decided they would leave Jonestown.
On the last day of the visit, Congressman Ryan was suddenly attacked by a knife-wielding member of the congregation. The “half-hearted” assailant was restrained by others and the Congressman was unscathed, but he left immediately with his party for Port Kaituma airstrip, about 5 miles away, joining up with those who had decided to leave the Temple. At the airstrip there was a delay, as an extra plane had to be chartered to accommodate the extra people who were leaving.
As the second chartered plane, a six-seat Cessna, prepared for take-off, Larry Layton, a Temple member who had feigned a desire to leave, opened fire on other passengers inside the cabin, but was restrained. He had not been allowed on Ryan’s plane. Meanwhile Ryan’s plane was ambushed from outside by gunmen who arrived concealed in a tractor that had driven to the airstrip from Jonestown as people prepared to board. Congressman Ryan was killed, along with four others, and the plane disabled. The assassins specifically targeted the Congressman, shooting him repeatedly at close range to ensure he was dead, as well as some of the news crew. The Cessna was able to take-off and report the incident in Georgetown, while survivors fled into the jungle and hid. The gunmen who assassinated the Congressman, presumed to be members of the Peoples Temple, were never positively identified.
Back in Jonestown, Jim Jones and the community gathered under their pavilion, where the Reverend said he was not responsible for organising an attack on the Congressman, but knew it would happen. He suggested everyone in the community would be violently attacked by government forces who would retaliate and shoot them from helicopters. He proposed “revolutionary suicide” as the best course of action, after which everyone apparently willingly drank poisoned Kool-Aid from a vat, and laid down and died in rows.
The mass deaths at Jonestown were discovered the following morning, 19 November 1978, by a large contingent of Guyanese soldiers who headed there after reaching and securing the airstrip at dawn. They were soon joined by US government forces.
There is quite a lot more to the Jonestown story, however, and many anomalies, which we will now delve into in the next section.